Ndamukong Suh has lived up to all the expectations of being the NFL's free-agent prom king. He educated the Detroit Lions on the dangers of sweeping salary-cap restructures under the bed. He probably cried some crocodile tears after that playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He played the NFL's business game brilliantly, maxing out his own worth with the Miami Dolphins.
But back away a few steps and look at the wider angle of the Suh development. If the numbers are correct ($19 million per season, $60 million guaranteed, $114 million total as reported by ESPN) Suh doesn't even stand as the most important figure in this picture. The guy willing to juggle that financial hand grenade, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, is the one whose move will eventually warp rosters beyond his own.
That's the long game here. The Suh deal just turned the dial on elite money to a full 10. Not just for defensive players, but all players. Which isn't a bad thing or unfair or even unwarranted. It just isn't the kind of thing appreciated by the overall collection of NFL owners, who don't applaud someone taking maximum figures and kicking them forward more than a few inches. But Ross took a guaranteed money figure for defensive players and advanced it to franchise quarterback level: $60 million.
A defensive tackle now makes franchise quarterback money.
Prior to Sunday, four quarterbacks owned the top spots in guaranteed money, and only San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick had eclipsed the $60 million guaranteed mark ($61 million).
The three biggest defensive guarantees before Suh's $60 million were $47.368 million (Patrick Peterson), $51.5 million (Gerald McCoy) and J.J. Watt's $51.876 million. At the very least, this means Watt, the best defensive player on the planet, is suddenly not even close to the best compensated, making an average of $2.33 million less annually, and lagging by more than $8 million guaranteed. And McCoy, the other annual All-Pro defensive tackle, is making $3.13 million less annually. Don't cry for those guys. But don't be surprised if they're looking for a financial bump in a few years, either.
While fans have little empathy for the NFL country club and underpaid millionaires, they do understand contract strife. They do understand locker-room chemistry. They don't like money complications. So they should understand a deal like this isn't great for the harmony of their favorite team, either. Particularly if you root for anyone who isn't under the salary cap by tens of millions of dollars.
And if you're interested in having or keeping a franchise quarterback, this should at least concern you. As one league source said upon hearing Suh's numbers Sunday, "So what do we pay the quarterbacks now?"
The answer? You pay them more. (The Seattle Seahawks might want to pay attention here.)
Heading toward $70 million in guaranteed money and $23 million, $24 million, $25 million annually. And you pay the best defensive players more. A lot more. And the guys just below them? Now you pay them a contract that used to fall under the "a lot more" category.
It's economics. It's how the system works. But other owners still won't appreciate it. Particularly after they just let Ross into the club in 2008, and are already dealing with him complaining about needing a new publicly funded stadium.
They won't appreciate it because it wasn't Miami simply spending a ridiculous surplus under its salary cap. They won't appreciate it because Miami did it by forgoing current and future talent. They won't appreciate it because this is the kind of spending that creates arms races and salary-cap hell.
And they won't forget that Detroit played a part in this, either, by ridiculously mismanaging salary-cap restructuring and killing its own ability to use the franchise tag. They won't appreciate Detroit letting Suh get to the market and creating extraordinary conditions with longstanding tidal waves.
To be sure, this is a deal that will change far more than the defensive lines in Miami and Detroit. And while the owners are the only ones who aren't happy now, everyone but the players will feel some pain in the end.